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Summer heat a major medical concern for RNC in Tampa

TAMPA — When Ryan Pedigo thinks about the more than 50,000 delegates, protesters, journalists and others expected here in August for the Republican National Convention, one thing comes to mind.

The heat.

"With 93 degree average temperatures, 90 percent-plus humidity . . . the biggest concern is with heat-related illnesses and injuries," said Pedigo, director of public health preparedness for the Hillsborough County Health Department.

Pedigo and representatives from federal, state and local governments, law enforcement agencies and local hospitals have been working for more than a year on a plan to handle various medical-related scenarios that might come up during the convention, Aug. 27-30.

They're figuring out, among other things, what medical assistance might be needed inside the convention perimeter, including treatment for heat exhaustion or exposure to pepper spray, who will provide that care and which hospitals to send patients to, if needed.

Much of the group's work since October 2010 has been gathering information, he said.

Members have been looking at how Tampa has handled large-scale events such as Gasparilla and the Super Bowl. They're reviewing the county's mass casualty plan. And they're learning from previous conventions, including the 2008 RNC in Minneapolis, where more than 1,000 protesters sought treatment, mostly for exposure to pepper spray.

But as this year's convention approaches, preparations are ramping up.

The annual countywide mass casualty exercise is scheduled for April 10, and it could involve a convention-related scenario. Pedigo said the exercise typically includes dealing with large numbers of patients requiring emergency room care, termed "hospital surge."

Tampa General would play a key role in any hospital surge, as it is the facility closest to the convention perimeter and handles the region's most serious trauma cases.

"We're not strangers to having large crowds around the hospital. We do it every year for Gasparilla," TGH spokesman John Dunn said.

He said the hospital holds drills every year to prepare for major events. Planning could involve increasing the hospital's emergency department capacity, beefing up staffing and coordinating with other hospitals.

Dunn noted that the convention falls at a time when the hospital's 6,500 employees are prepared for another big event: a hurricane.

At nearby St. Joseph's, which operates the area's busiest emergency department/trauma center, "preparing for worst-case scenarios is business as usual," spokeswoman Lisa Patterson said.

Generally, medical workers would try to treat people at the scene, Pedigo said. For patients who need to go to the hospital, the next goal is to make sure no one institution is overloaded.

Dunn said another challenge is ensuring that Tampa General can function normally during the convention. He noted the hospital provides services not offered anywhere else in the region, including burn care and organ transplants.

"We're confident they'll come up with a plan that will allow ambulances to get in and out of here," Dunn said.

The hospital has no plans to limit elective surgeries during the convention. But don't be surprised if doctors and patients try to arrange their calendars around the convention. In 2008, elective surgeries decreased significantly during the four convention days, particularly at the hospitals closest to the convention site, according to a report published in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

Pedigo said that would be up to individual hospitals to decide. "We would never ask a hospital not to see patients," he said.

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3322

Summer heat a major medical concern for RNC in Tampa 03/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:30pm]
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